Better ways to call it quits

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You likely know the reasons why you should quit smoking.

If you didn’t, here’s a fact sheet from the World Health Organization. You’re probably aware that stopping smoking reduces your risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease more commonly referred to as COPD (more facts here). A recent study has further shown that long-term smoking causes your brain’s cortex to thin. The good news is that stopping smoking will restore part of your cortex.

You probably also know that you can receive support from the Health Promotion Board on the Quit Smoking Helpline (1800 438 2000) and the I Quit mobile app. But you may not be aware that some ways to quit are better than others. Here’s what the experts say:

1. Cut back on nicotine slowly
A 2015 study shows that brain oxygen uptake and blood flow decreases up to 17% just 12 hours after people stop smoking. This nauseatingly unpleasant sensation is a likely obstacle for many aiming to stop smoking entirely. So actually, it seems that quitting gradually may be better in the long run than going cold turkey.

2. E-cigarettes are one way to quit smoking
recent study found that as many as a fifth of participants had quit smoking and were smoke-free 8 months after a 2-month study, during which they could use e-cigarettes. In another recent study involving randomized trials, more participants were smoke-free by the end of the year with e-cigarettes (9% quit smoking) than a placebo (4% quit smoking). It also turns out that the kind of e-cigarette you use and how often you use them may be more important than you thought. Recent reports suggest that e-cigarettes are effective if used regularly and if you use the refillable tank versions. The jury’s still out though, according to a 2015 meta-analysis of research: This analysis says that on the whole, e-cigarettes helped people stay smoke-free for a month but not 3 or 6 months after quitting.

3. Use concrete rewards
Give yourself an incentive to stop smoking. Don’t laugh. It works. Participants who earned a $20 gift card on their quit date and additional $5 each week for the following 12 weeks after the quit date, were much more likely to stay smoke-free than those who didn’t have a financial incentive to do so. In this 2014 study, about half were smoke-free a month after their quit date, and a third remained smoke-free 2 months after they stopped receiving any financial incentive.

A 2015 study found that adding a financial disincentive further improved quit rates. More people stayed smoke-free for 6 months if they received US$800 than if they had counselling or nicotine-replacement therapy (gum, medication, patches). But even more people stayed smoke-free if they not only received US$650 but also had to forfeit a US$150 deposit for not staying smoke-free 6 months after the quit date. So here’s a way for your supporters to do something concrete to up your chance of success. It’s better, of course, if your friends and family have deep pockets.

4. Consider coaching and counselling options
Getting help and support from an stop smoking specialist advisor has been shown to be one of the most effective strategies for helping smokers stay smoke-free. But not everyone wants or has time for one-to-one sessions. A 2014 study found that providing smokers with support through a virtual stop-smoking advisor via the interactive “StopAdvisor” website doubled quit rates among those from lower income groups. Unfortunately, that’s not an option here.

You can however receive support from smoking cessation programmes at the polyclinics — both the National Healthcare Group and SingHealth polyclinics offer them. Smoking cessation advisors can also help at the Department of Pharmacy at Changi General Hospital, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, and National University Hospital, as well as at Singapore General Hospital (Department of Respiratory & Critical Care Medicine), Tan Tock Seng Hospital (Clinic 4A), and the National Skin Centre.

And everyone can get involved. Family and friends can getting involved too. Anyone can learn the basics of smoking cessation counselling — HPB provides Level 1 and Level 2 training, and continuing education Level 3 workshops.

There may also be a smoking cessation programme at your workplace: Check with your HR to find out more. And if there isn’t, consider seeking support from a professional counsellor — the Employee Assistance Programme or EAP at your workplace may be a good place to start.

5. Watch out for your cravings
A 2015 study found that brain areas associated with smoking cravings were much less activated for women during the ovulation period than a later part of the menstrual cycle. Even if you’re not planning to time your exit from nicotine, you could be mentally more prepared to do battle with your cravings before you get to that time of the month.

You can have all resources about how to best quit, but it’s the emotional support that’s most crucial to staying smoke-free. Just remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to quitting. Have a happy smoke-free No Tobacco Day!

Are you a collector or a hoarder?

A collection of lego

After a trip to the supermarket, we usually have a pile of plastic bags, which we’ll stash somewhere safe in the kitchen. We probably have fewer plastic bags these days because we’re into recycling and using our own cloth or non-woven bags. And you can save 10 cents by bringing your own bag. But we typically get a bag when we buy something. And we’ll stack these neatly in a pile somewhere at home. And that something that we’ve bought often comes in a box, which we’ll keep because it’ll come in useful some day.

Or perhaps you’re the sort that just throws everything away and recycles all the paper and cardboard products as soon as you get home to unwrap your new toy. Because you’re afraid of accumulating too much stuff and of becoming a hoarder. Because you know someone who is one.

It seems hard to imagine how one can keep so many things that the home becomes too cluttered to move or clean, even to the extent that a clean-up team from the Housing Development Board and National Environment Agency is required. But it’s a problem that’s much more common than you may think. As many as 1 in 50 show hoarding behaviours in Singapore, according to a 2015 study. And it’s a problem not simply solved with a clean up. Those who hoard have “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them” (Mayo Clinic). As such, they usually need professional help.

Although hoarding was previously categorized as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD, experts now recognize hoarding to be distinct from OCD (see also the DSM-V).

A 2012 study found that the brains of those who hoard were overstimulated when tasked with deciding whether to discard or keep junk mail that was addressed to them. In contrast, the same brain area was inactive for the same task involving junk mail addressed to a third party — a research lab. These findings speak volumes about the crippling indecision that those who hoard face when forced to clean up their homes.

Those who compulsively hoard tend to place much greater value on things that they keep and they place value on many more things that others would. And their anxiety which stems from trying to make discard-or-keep decisions, is a huge obstacle to gaining control over their cluttered homes. It’s no surprise that hoarding is without exception “always accompanied by anxiety“.

Perhaps we’re not quite there yet. We can claim to be collectors of plastic bags and cardboard boxes because they’re still sitting neatly in a drawer and a cupboard. But it may be useful to acknowledge when our collecting behaviours are turning into hoarding ones (refer to this Fact Sheet for signs and symptoms). Ask yourself these questions:

Do you feel overwhelmed by the clutter in your home?
Is the clutter preventing you from using your furniture or appliances?
Do you avoid having visitors so that they won’t see the clutter?

If yes, it may be time for you or your loved one to seek help. Professional help in the form of intensive cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT, with a therapist who has experience with hoarding behaviours, has been shown to be effective in helping hoarders.

Here are some resources for helping those who hoard to help themselves: Start by setting realistic and small goals (e.g., aim to clear one shelf). It’s never too late: Here are some top tips to help contain the clutter.

7 Ways to Manage Your Stress

Burnout in the city

  • Do you get to work, but not feel like working (or doing anything)?
  • Have lots to do, but feel way too tired to tackle any of it?
  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on the task at hand?
  • Feeling disillusioned or being cynical at work?
  • Find yourself being more critical or irritable with others at work?

Did you answer yes to the questions?

There are inevitably days when we’re not motivated at all to be productive. We get to work but leave the tasks that need doing for “later”. Or we get started but take ages doing the stuff that needs to be done.

There are definitely work days when we’re too tired to be our efficient and productive model selves. Possibly from staying up late or waking too early. Or both. And we dose ourselves with (more) caffeine to keep going.

But having a feeling of being fatigued and unmotivated about work more than just occasionally is something to sit up and pay attention to. Feeling overwhelmeddisillusioned, and/or cynical at work are also warning signs of job burnout. Being less able to see things from the perspective of others at work (when you usually do) should also set off an alarm bell or two.

For those feeling the effects of burnout, it may be time to speak to HR or a professional counsellor. Doing a self-assessment may also be a step in the right direction:

  • Test yourself here.
  • Find out if you’re experiencing job burnout here.
  • Analyze why you may be experiencing stress at your workplace here.

For those of us who think our insipid days at the office occur as frequently as solar eclipses, we might still want to pay attention to how we deal with stress at work and home. Here’s how we can improve our ranking as a happy nation:

1. Carve out undisturbed time for work
A substantial number among the 292 local senior managers and business owners polled in an international 2015 workplace survey, said that they were most productive before 9am. It’s not that we need to shift our work hours. Rather, we need to carve out a block of time for work that’s not disturbed by emails and distracting conversations.

2. Put an embargo on emails
Checking your email later in the day allows you to take advantage of chunking. It’s more efficient to reply to a batch of urgent emails than to reply to every email as it comes in. It also has improves your mental wellbeing. A 2014 study found that those who checked their inbox only 3 times a day felt less stressed than their peers who had no limit on the number of times they could check their inbox a day.

3. Get the optimal amount of sleep
Employees in sleep-deprived Singapore usually say they need more sleep. So it might come as a surprise that there’s actually an optimal amount of sleep we should get, if we’re to maintain our mental and physical well-being.

The US National Sleep Foundation’s 2015 report recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for working adults. A 2014 study which followed 3,760 adults in Finland for an average of 7 years, found that the optimal amount of sleep was 7 to 8 hours a night. Those who slept over 10 hours a night were just as likely to be absent from work due to sickness as those who slept less than 5 hours a night.

If you’re not getting the right amount of sleep, it may be time to review your sleep habits: “Do you have a regular sleep schedule? Do you have a bedtime routine? Do you make sleep a priority?” Get more tips here.

But it may be that your sleepless nights relate to work-life balance. A 2015 study found that employees increased their sleep by one hour a week and were more efficient in getting to sleep after participating in a 3-month programme designed to train managers and employees how to better manage work-family conflicts. You might not have access to such a training programme, but work-family concerns are issues worth reviewing. If only just to get more sleep and improve your mood. Small things like that.

4. Get happy by napping 
So okay, it’s not realistic to expect that everyone will get their much needed 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Once every other week, you’ll mess up your routine with too much caffeine, partying too hard, overworking, getting tired and cranky infants to bed, looking after sick pets, and many other reasons too innumerable to list.

That’s when you should plan to invest in a good quality nap. A 2015 study showed that 2 half-hour naps reversed the adverse effects of having only 2 hours of sleep on our stress response and immune system. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you get started.

5. Walk around the problem
It’s easier to sleep when you exercise. That’s not new. Neither is the news that people with depression in their 20s tend not to engage in physical activities. What’s new is the finding that those who exercise more as they age are less likely to be depressed. That’s what was found by a 2014 study which followed 11,135 adults until the age of 50.

Similarly, another 2014 study finds that those who go for group nature walks report better mental well-being and less stress. This may be explained by a 2014 finding: Recent research suggests that exercise plays a protective role in shielding our brain from the adverse effects of chronic stress — depression (read this article to understand the science behind this mechanism). So, it may be time you explored a nature park near you. Try something new: Springleaf Nature Park or Kranji Wetlands.

6. Go nuts on fruits and veggies
You’ll have better mental health if you eat more fruits and veggies. That’s what a 2014 study on 14,000 respondents in England found. The majority of those who reported high levels of “optimism, happiness, self-esteem, resilience, and good relationships” said that they ate 3 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, with over half of them eating 5 or more servings daily.

It may be that those with high mental well-being tend to have healthy lifestyle habits. But if you’re mental well-being scores are low (find out here), you might want to ask yourself, how many portions of fruits and veggies am I eating every day?

7. Comfort yourself but not with high-fat foods
Research suggests that a high-fat diet can adversely affect our mental health. Animal studies link gut bacteria from a high-fat diet to an increase in anxiety behaviours, while studies on humans find that taking prebiotics and probiotics improves our stress response to threatening stimuli. What this means is that having good gut bacteria could potentially help alleviate anxiety symptoms. And eating less saturated fat and more fruits and veggies will encourage good bacteria to make a home in our gut.

We may not know if we’re the ones who suffer the most from stress (we do actually — those with a more variable heart rate will suffer more from stress, says a 2014 study — but it’s not easy for the average consumer to measure their heart rate variability). But at least we know a few things we can do to change it.

Quick tips to happiness

Quick Tips to Happiness

There are some reports that being happy means that we’re more productive at the workplace, judging by the desire of some organizations to increase workplace happinessIt might seem crazy what I’m about to saybut it seems that it might just be a little more important to help unhappy employees rather than find ways to make employees happier.

It’s not difficult to understand why unhappy employees are probably less engaged and less productive at their workplace (read this 2012 article). The impact of mental well-being on job productivity is plain to see. High levels of occupational stress impact psychological well-being and job satisfaction, which in turn adversely affect employee engagement and productivity. At the same time, prolonged exposure to stress not only damages our long-term memory capacity but also weakens our immune functioning. A recent study has even suggests that stress is contagious: Observing someone get stressed makes us feel stressed!

A 2011 study reveals that role conflict and role ambiguity are sources of stress which negatively impact mental well-being, while older findings point to job control (workers who have little control over their job outcome) and low levels of social support as other important source of stress. Equipping employees with stress management techniques and providing them with access to counselling (based on a sample of Malaysian fire-fighters) are frequent recommendations which arise from such studies.

Here we take a look at whether some tips for promoting happiness, even workplace happiness, are effective strategies for managing stress:

1. Exercise YES
Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Exercise improves psychological mood and mental well-being, reduces depression symptoms and anxiety levels, and lowers absenteeism rates. The release of endorphins in exercise results in muscle relaxation and makes available neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin) which help make us feel good.

2. Meditation YES
Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998), thus helping us manage our stress levels. But this can be achieved through mindfulness where one focuses on breathing. But other methods such as pursuing creative hobbies are also found to be effective.

3. Nurturing social relationships YES
Using active coping strategies such as seeking social support (e.g., friends, family, co-workers) are associated with reduced job stress.

4. Having something to look forward to ERM…
We all need things to look forward to. That holiday in the mountains where smart devices do not work. Those weekly pilates and yoga classes. Happy people tend to have things they look forward to and find purpose in. But looking forward to it in itself is not part of the stress management kit. The self-care activities are.

5. Eliciting positive emotions and avoiding negative ones ERM…
Our ability to shift a bad mood to a good one develops in early childhood, although some of us may be better at regulating our own emotions than others. We typically aim to avoid things which elicit negative emotions for us and look towards things which promote positive emotions.

Faced with team conflicts, our desire to avoid confrontations and negative emotions can however cause us to stonewall and ignore the problem. Not particularly a productive way to solve a problem. Conversely, this tip advocates investing in things which promote positive emotions. One example is spending time in the green outdoors. It’s noteworthy though that this self-care activity works because it is an opportunity to exercise and it induces relaxation.

Emotions do affect productivity: A study in 2000 showed that teams with managers, who infused positive emotions into their team, were more cooperative and produced better task performance than teams whose managers expressed negative emotions. So being able to get ourselves out of a bad mood makes for effective teams and desirable managers. But it’s not a stress management tool.

6. Exercise fairness ERM…
Employees with fair managers are likely to be productive and engaged in their job. But fair managers can be at risk of burn out and need to take extra care of themselves! Exercising fairness is unlikely to be a useful stress management technique. Engaging in regular self-care (exercise, relaxation, social support) is.

7. Optimism, gratitude and kindness OH ALRIGHT, YES!
Changing one’s perspective on a problem is an active coping strategy which can be useful when coping with difficulties. We know it as “looking on the bright side of things” or optimism. Counsellors call this reframing the problem. It’s more effective for dealing with stressors than avoidance strategies such as distracting oneself with TV or food.

Seeing a problem as a challenge, and being therefore grateful for the challenge (previously a “problem”) and being subsequently intentionally kind to its source (known as “difficult colleague”), are useful when dealing with sources of stress. They help us navigate life’s stressful events and building mental resilience, as this article instructs.

Not surprisingly, gratitude is associated with stronger immune systems and psychological well-being, while altrustic acts are associated with better mental well-being. At the same time, it has been demonstrated that acts of intentional kindness produce improvements in life satisfaction (though note that gratitude is not a crutch for ignoring a problem).

So the first three and the last are useful for managing stress at the workplace. But there may just be a few important strategies missing from this list…

Be S.U.R.E. Know the facts. Do something about it.

Maybe work isn’t your happy place

Maybe work isn't your happy place

Not long ago, a study reported that a substantial number of people were found to have lower levels of stress hormone while at the office than when at home. This finding downplays the stress at the workplace. To be more precise, men were the ones more likely to experience stress at the office than home.

But it doesn’t discount the fact that people still experience stress at the workplace. As many as 20% of those polled in a 2013 HPB survey reported high levels of job stress. That’s 2 in every 10 employees. And almost half of those polled in a separate survey (comprising at least 400 employees per country) reported a lack of job satisfaction. More disturbing is the finding that over half of those polled in a recent LinkedIn survey would consider sacrificing a workplace friendship for promotion. That spells for a happy workplace. Not.

Although job stress often surfaces from employees managing heavy workloads, there are many other factors which impact employee engagement. Things which managers and supervisors play an enormous role in shaping. Things like team dynamics, personality clashes, and leadership styles.

Here are 10 ways line managers can help:

1. Social support
A Gallup poll found that engaged employees were more likely to have friends at the workplace. Line managers play a role in cultivating a work culture which encourages friendships. Look here for tips.

2. Work-life balance
Employees are more likely to be engaged and productive when their leaders value sustainable ways of working, which includes supporting work-life balance. A HBR survey reveals that it’s important for leaders to practice what they preach. It’s a tune that’s getting more airtime these days.

3. Find ways to get active
We all know why we should invest in moderate to vigorous exercise three times a week and incorporate fruits, veggies, and whole grains in our daily diet. It does wonders for our cardiovascular health. It protects against dementia and certain types of cancer. But workplace health programmes may not always stress a key benefit (no pun intended). Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Here’s an incentive for line managers to support the Get Fit programme at the office!

4. Find time to relax
Research supports the view that engaging in relaxation activities helps us manage our stress. A recent INSEAD study shows that spending just 15 minutes focused on breathing enabled people to make better decisions. Another recent study shows that creative pursuits are an effective way to recharge and destress. Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998). Findings that extroverts relax more easily than introverts suggests that we need to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all way to relax. 

5. Assertive communication
Exercise is an excellent way to get back into a good mood. But we’re probably not going to be running a treadmill or smashing a ball against the wall when given extra responsibilities at work. There are no appropriate moment to go “en garde”. Or signal for us to put on the boxing gloves. We can however learn to say no. Line managers have the responsibility to encourage staff to practice assertive communication.

6. Sleep is underrated
Sleep is not just for those who party hard. It’s for those who want to learn, solve problems, remember things, and make good decisions (here’s the science). What’s more, sleep is the anti-aging treatment. But you’ve heard this many times over. But did you know that exposure to blue light which your smart devices emit in large quantities makes it more difficult to get to sleep quickly or to get good quality sleep? It’s time to tell your staff to switch off their devices and get more REM and deep sleep – essential for enhancing job performance (tips at the end of this article).

7. Use your Employee Assistance Programme!
Family conflict affects relationships at the office, not just at home. A recent study shows that conflict at the home causes employees to react negatively to co-workers and to use fewer adaptive strategies (e.g., social support, assertiveness) at work. Another study shows that mood affects productivity. Those coping with a difficult life event (e.g., bereavement, illness in the family) make more mistakes when adding two numbers together than those not experiencing such an event. Those coping with life events also report lower happiness and productivity ratings than their peers. Managers in organizations with an EAP can encourage staff to use their EAP to tackle work-related and/or personal problems. Recent research indicates that “organizational support programs, which aim to improve employee well-being, are not being used by the employees who need them most”.

8. Training evaluation
A 1997 study showed that an in-house time management training programme, which enhanced employee’s capacity for impulse control and for regulating their own emotions, had a 1989% return in a 3-week period. It’s noteworthy that employees were not given generic, practical tips but instead encouraged to manage their emotions. Most importantly, the organization measured outcomes in terms of employee performance (e.g., rated by co-workers, line managers) not satisfaction with the training programme.

9. Organizational structure
It’s not hard to see how workplace harrassment can negatively impact employee well-being and physical health, in turn affecting productivity and employee engagement. But a recent review of the literature indicates that workplace harrassment does not arise from just personality clashes alone. The way an organization is structured may make it easier for bullying to take place. So it’s ever more important now than before that senior management explicitly supports respectful behaviour.

10. Self-care
Fair bosses are the best! They produce engaged employees and productive companies. But they’re prone to burn out (evidence here). So self-care is imperative for managers and supervisors. That is, doing all the above themselves. This includes: “getting sufficient sleep, taking short mental breaks during the workday, adhering to a healthy diet and detaching from work completely when outside of the office”

Bosses, take note!

Happy Labour Day!

Take your vacation time!

You’re planning to spend your May Day holiday at home on the sofa with the TV. And you just got up a few minutes ago to meet your friends and family for a lazy brunch and are now admiring the herons and boats that don’t belong to you at Keppel Marina.

You’re automatically checking work email for updates while at brunch (your fingers move faster than your brain can say “stop doing that”). And starting to feel cranky (when are my eggs benedict arriving?) and are already looking forward to returning to the sofa to do nothing all afternoon.

If you’re doing all that, instead of posting selfies at some exotic location and creating social envy mayhem on facebook, it probably means that you didn’t quite make it to planning a trip away for this long weekend break.

But it’s not too late. There are still approximately six months left in the year for you to make time for some rest and relaxation. Here are some ideas:

1. May
Blue tiger butterflies congregate in the valley at Datun Mountain in the Yang Ming Shan National Park, Taiwan from April to May. It’s an easy 40 min bus ride from Taipei Main Station (rapid transit) to the park.

2. June
One of the world’s best dive site, Sipadan which is off the coast of Sabah, Malaysia, is best visited in the dry season – between April and Nov/Dec. Turtles, fishes, coral, rays and sharks are the reason to go diving there. Visitors can stay at Semporna on the coast. Visitors need to take a 2.5 hour flight from KL to Tawau, and then catch a ride from Tawau to the village. A hundred and twenty divers are allowed each day (no limit on non-diving visitors) at Sipadan which is 40 mins by speed boat.

3. July
Tapirs, among other wildlife including trogons and broadbills, are most easily spotted at mineral licks in the Taman Negara National Park, Pahang, Malaysia during July, the peak of the dry season which lasts from March to October. Travel involves a 2 hour coach ride from the Pekeliling Bus Station in KL to Jerantut, and another 1 to 1.5 hour bus ride to Kuala Tahan, the local village nearest to the park.

4. August
Day lilies bloom and cover the Sixty Stone Mountain in Hualien county, Taiwan from August to September. Express trains take 2 hours to get from Taipei Railway Main Station to Hualien.

5. September
Peak egg laying season is July to October for Green and Hawksbill turtles at Turtle Islands, off the coast of Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. It’s a few hours to fly from the capital KL to Sandakan via Kota Kinabalu in Sarawak.

6. October
It’s not the school holidays so October is a good time for a trip to Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, Malaysia. It is also migratory bird season and Fraser’s Hill has much to offer, from local trogons and broadbills to siamang and gibbons. Visitors can follow a tour or hire a car to get to the bungalows on the hill.

7. November
Migratory season for shore birds fleeing from the harsh winters to the Mai Po Wetlands in Hong Kong starts late October. The journey to the wetlands involves a 1.5 hour MTR ride to Sheung Shui station from Central, a 50 min bus ride to the nearest bus stop, and 20 min walk to the nature reserve.

8. December
The cool and dry season for Hanoi, Vietnam lasts from November to April, making December a relatively cool month to visit Halong Bay. Attractions include pristine beaches and boat tours of picturesque limestone towers which dot the bay.

9. January
It’s getting colder in the northern hemisphere. And the beginning of new year resolutions to exercise and smell the roses more. It’s a splendid time to visit these Unesco sites. The royal palace, Pha Bang, and the 16th century wat in Luang Prabang, Laos is one for the culture vultures. Scholars of Southeast Asian civilisation will want to visit the 8-9 AD temples at Borobodur, Java, Indonesia, as well as the palace in Java’s cultural capital, Yogyakarta.

10. February 
February is the dry season in Khao Yai, the big mountain, in Thailand and a good time to go hiking for gibbons, elephants, and hornbills. It’s 2.5 hours by bus from Mo Chit, the northern bus terminal in Bangkok to Pak Chong, the nearest town to Khao Yai. Gaurs are said to be more easily spotted though in the dry hot season in March to April.

11. March
If you’re waiting till March, you can visit NATAS!

Not to belabour the point, but it’s important to say no to work (APA has some pointers). Everyone needs a holiday to recharge and reap the benefits of exercise and fixing their sleep deficit. And if you haven’t got enough leave, take a short break instead (why? read this article).

So no time like the present. What are you waiting for? Get planning!

Recipe for stress management

Mental wellbeing at the workplace

Corporate programmes which promote workplace wellbeing typically muscle in on environmental and systemic changes. These include providing healthier food options in the staff canteen and at catered office and business events, as well as populating open-plan offices with gifts of apples (and promises about keeping doctors away, all the while keeping an eye on pressing insurance premiums, staff medical bills and days of absenteeism down and propping immune systems and worker productivity up).

Such advocates also typically make persuasive arguments about the health benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and foods which lower low density cholesterol (LDL) levels (read: foods cooked in low levels of polyunsaturated fat, but let’s not get into that fatty debacle). And promotion of incorporating moderate to vigorous exercise into one’s weekly routine completes the equation in the corporate framework.

But nagging people into a healthy lifestyle clearly has its limits. Diabetes has a one in ten prevalence rate (MOH), while almost one in eleven has a BMI higher than 23 (MOH; see also HPB). That hasn’t changed in recent years: one in ten could be classified as clinically obese in 2011, according to this news report.

We can provide people with lots of information. The right kind of information. The internet and media together with workplace health programmes are saturated with information about how fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and chasing a ball round the field (substitute: swimming pool, garden, park, court, gym class) with other sweaty individuals, are effective ways to lower blood pressure and LDL levels and for normalizing blood glucose levels, thereby squashing the risks of a heart attack, stroke, dementia, and specific cancers. Robust effects exist for both eating and exercise.

We can provide convincing reasons for making a shift to a healthier lifestyle. Rather than just knowing that fruits and veggies are good for you, it could be better to know that increasing one’s intake of peppers, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, brinjal, broccoli, kai lan, tau geh, watercress, spinach, bayam, bitter gourd, apples, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, mango, chiku, and bananas cultivate good gut bacteria, the kind that’s associated with healthy metabolism and discourage bad gut bacteria, the kind associated with obesity (and science types interested in the fatty debacle can read this journal article). While live culture yoghurt has probiotics, eating fruits and veggies can put you at least a few steps ahead of the game. There’s also talk of a poo pill (“‘Poo pill’ the new way to better health?“, Today, 8 Jan 2014: A Daily Telegraph article).

But that’s not the one that really speaks to us. It’s the elephant in the room. Our stress levels. We tackle the hotpot of our workplace stress with longer work hours. We add flavour and seasoning to the pressure cooker by saying yes to more jobs, more meetings, more responsibilities. And then we let things simmer. Not surprising that we end up with tenderized employees who holiday with their blackberry (“S’pore travellers can’t do without Internet”, Straits Times, 8 Jan 2014).

Here’s our recipe for keeping stress on the backburner:

– a tbsp active coping behaviours
– a tbsp of assertive communication style
– 150g fruits
– 450g vegetables
– a really small pinch of low-nutrient high-calorie comfort foods
– a liberal seasoning of in-the-office exercises
– a tbsp zest for life (exercise helps; better if you find something you like doing!)
– a string of time out moments to reflect on how stress is affecting you (tips here)
– 3 cups of regular walks and bike rides along park connectors (or any of these)
– 3 cups of rubber band stretching exercises (or get a bike like this)
– (optional: seek professional help when things start to boil over)

What counts as a supportive workplace?

Bullying, Harassment

Close to a quarter of workers in Singapore reported themselves to have experienced workplace bullying last year, according to figures from a 2012 JobCentral survey which sampled over 2,200 local respondents.

Going by the www.bullyingstatistics.org definition that workplace bullying involves receiving unreasonable, embarrassing, or intimidating treatment from one or a group of co-workers, manager/supervisor, or employer, it would appear that employee experiences documented in the JobCentral survey—verbal abuse, personal attacks, being ignored—can be deftly grouped as workplace bullying. But there is also the concept that the behaviours are repeated and persistent (HRM Asia, 1 Oct 2013; cf. the definition of bullying in the context of school-age children).

Clearly, a workplace which tolerates bullying is highly unlikely to win the award for most supportive workplace environment. In contrast, having a zero-tolerance policy and a workplace violence prevention policy (here’s a sample policy from SMEToolkit), as well as workplace training programmes for managing aggression (here are some tips from Yahoo! News, 23 May 2013), are signs that your employer is working towards providing a supportive environment. Having clear guidelines and an explicit zero-tolerance policy at the workplace regarding sexual harassment (this article in SimplyHer, March 2011 suggests a plan of action) and online harassment (nobullying.com suggests a firm policy against cyberbullying) are essential components of a supportive workplace.

A supportive environment at the workplace is more than receiving free fruit, having exercise balls instead of chairs, pocket money to buy yoga mats, badminton rackets and shuttlecocks, shower facilities, and a staff canteen ever ready to dish out chor bee (unpolished rice) and whole-grain-beehoon for lunch (though these are nice to have). It’s a social environment in which we’re free to focus on the job at hand without having to worry about psychological cold war at the office and unfair distributions of workload and responsibilities among team players.

And we’re only going to be engaged at work if our work environment is safe. Remind your bosses of that on this International Day of Happiness…in case they forgot.